The day was Friday, January 13, 2012. I was on my way to the offices of the New Dawn, but first stopped on the campus of the University of Liberia. The serene pockets of debates or discussions that usually characterize the campus were absent. In their stead was commotion. Once again, violence had visited the university.
“What’s going on? What’s the problem?” I inquired inquisitively.
“It’s the gay rights guy and UL students fighting so. He was here to speak in favor of legalizing gay marriage, but the students chased him out. If he had stayed, they would have seriously harmed him,” responded a student standing not too far from me.
“What’s his name?” I asked.
“I think his name is Archie Ponpon,” another student helped.
“Did he bring a gun to harm somebody?” I asked again.
“No, no, he only wanted to speak in favor of gay rights,” the same student, a male, answered.
“No guns! That’s clear. But did he bring a knife or some weapon to injury students or any other group, for that matter?” I asked pointedly tenaciously.
“No. No at all,” he responded.
“Wow! So he was only armed, not with guns and knives, but with ideas and the vocabulary to express those ideas?” I threw in.
“That’s right,” he clarified.
“What a sad day for the University of Liberia! It’s disappointing. It’s unfortunate. It’s … Oh! It’s really sad!” I ended.
I got back in my car and toward the main entrance I moved. I saw PSU and other officers trying to put the situation under control. People thronged the main entrance and adjacent areas where the main actions were taking place. There was stone-throwing, but the police was determined to quell the tension. There was a crowd of people on the left side of the main entrance. There was another crowd on the right side. There was a crowd of onlookers in the fence of the Capitol. There was an onlooker crowd as far as opposite the police station. That’s where I drove and parked my car before coming back up to listen to the splintered discussions that were going on around the main entrance and to take a few shots.
Focusing on the Issues
Today, the Issues Desk wishes to look at the violently intolerant manner in which some students of the University of Liberia reacted to Mr. LeRoy Archie Ponpon, the pro-gay rights Liberian, who had gone on the main campus of the university to present reasons why gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry and enjoy other rights. It is said that he is also a student of the University of Liberia.
We contend that the violent intolerance coming from some students of the University of Liberia is sad, disgraceful, unfortunate, uncivilized and highly disappointing, especially considering the fact it is the university that is supposed to nurture and promote the candid and unhindered exchange of ideas and views. That students of the university would be the very ones to forbid the free exchange of ideas is something that the students who were involved should be ashamed of. Their reaction and behavior and attitude are inimical to what the university stands for and should do.
The motto of the University of Liberia is “Lux in Tenebris,” translated, it means “Light in Darkness.” It is the place that illuminates dark areas, transforming ignorance to enlightenment, superstition-based reasoning to logic-based reasoning, intolerance to tolerance, prejudice to open-mindedness, preconceived notions to scientific methods, faulty presupposition to analytical conclusions, faulty rationalization to logical analysis, and so forth. This is the university setting that we know, and we thought this would be the environment that Mr. Ponpon would find himself. Unfortunately, he found on a ground that baffles not only Ponpon himself, but also those who know what the university means in the development and promotion of ideas and intellectualism.
We are disappointed that students of the university would welcome the free exchange of ideas with violence. We are saddened by the action of those whom many believe are supposed to be shinning examples in the promotion of freedom of expression. We are profoundly dispirited that those who are supposed to give their lives for the flourishing of free speech were the very ones forbidding its prosperity. We are dejected because if those considered to be the enlightened ones could behave in such a fashion, then the ignorant ones could continue to glory in their ignorance. Those who used violence against ideas and views disgraced the university. If university students can behave in such a manner, it may be difficult for many to recognize the difference between the educated and the uneducated, the enlightened and the ignorant. Some of us sat in our offices, rooms and other places and wept for what occurred on Friday. Indeed, it was a very sad day for “Lux in Tenebris.”
Many have concluded that those who violently disallow the free and candid exchange of ideas are usualy those who are both bereft of ideas and the ability to express those ideas, and such people usually resort to insults, fight and other violent acts. And for university students, especially students of the University of Liberia, to be the ones found in the latter category makes it even sadder and more disappointing.
By their action, what the anti-free speech students of the university are unmindful of is that their action could produce four unintended or unexpected results in favor of gay rights. First of all, gay rights activists could win a lot of sympathizers or supporters rapidly. Second, the gay rights debate could gain more traction or weight in the society quickly. Third, gays and lesbians and gay rights activists could soon be considered heroes, not villains; the victimized, not the victimizers. Fourth, the passage or submission of any gay rights bill could be made easier.
History has shown that ideas or activisms that are violently rejected almost always – if not always – become victorious. When Christianity began, a great deal of people felt that it was a strange way of life, a strange way that would not succeed. However, instead of allowing the “strange way that would not succeed to fade away just like that,” they started persecuting its adherents, just as some UL students are doing Mr. Ponpon and others. Today, we all know that Christianity is one of the world’s major religions. Similarly, gay rights issues could soon become some of the most important rights issues of our society.
The same can be said about the rights for the black people in the United States. When they began to highlight their plight and fight for the rights, there were many who said, “It can’t happen here. Let them go back to Africa. This is not their place. They will never be allowed to enjoy the same rights we have and enjoy.” Many black people were tortured, rejected, brutalized and killed. The point was that the Negroes were not people to have or enjoy the same rights as the rest of the society, the white-dominated society. In spite of their words and actions, Blacks gained their rights and, today, a black man is the President of the United States.
The same happened to women’s rights. It was said that they only belonged in the kitchen. They were not people to make political decisions or participate in political and religious leaderships. In fact, they were denied the right to vote. We are sure there were people who chased women’s rights activists out of various places, as some students of the University of Liberia have done to Mr. Ponpon. We believe there were people who said that women would never have the same rights as men in the American society or many other societies of the world. Today, it is proven that those people fought and talked in vain; women now have and enjoy a lot of rights as men do. Even right here in Liberia, a woman is the president. The words and actions of the anti-free speech UL students could very well help to give full rights and other benefits to gays and lesbians. Those UL students are ignorantly promoting the cause of gays and lesbians. And they may, sooner than later, reap what their ignorance is planting.
All students of the university ought to know that the university is – or should be – the center of intellectualism, free speech and tolerance. If the churches refuse to provide Mr. Ponpon audience or a platform to express his views on the issue, students of the University of Liberia should not. If a parochial school forbids Mr. Ponpon to enjoy or exercise his free speech right, students of the University of Liberia should not. If the ignorant and the intolerant folks of our society prevent him from stating his ideas and supporting them logically, students of the University of Liberia should not.
If a student or a group of students of the University of Liberia feels or believes that Mr. Ponpon’s ideas and arguments are wrong or misleading or faulty, let that student or group of students challenge him in an open debate under the Palaver Hut, in the auditorium, or some open setting for all to listen and decide who has better arguments or a more logical reasoning. Violence is not the answer. Stone-throwing is not the solution. Avoidance is not the remedy. Insults are not the panacea.
A female university student who was also vehemently and irrationally opposed to Mr. Ponpon enjoying the right of free speech remarked near the political Palaver Hut: “No, we will not allow him to speak here. He will not come here.”
This uninformed and emotional student had no clue about what she was talking. She does not even know that the university is an embodiment of free speech, ideas and intellectualism. That ill-informed student does not even know that when a group of people tries to forbid certain things in society, especially violently, there is the tendency for such things to gain traction. That student who, based on how she was speaking, seems to be bereft of ideas and the requisite vocabulary to express herself maturely and intellectually does not even know that there is no law that forbids gay rights debates or discussion in Liberia. She could even be ignorant of the fact that Liberia is a secular, not a religious state. She does not even realize that Article 15 of the Liberian Constitution gives Archie the right to form his opinions or express them in unhindered. She does not understand that treating the gay debate or discussion as a taboo is hilariously silly because treating it as a taboo has the propensity to make the issue explore.
In conclusion, what a few students did on the campus of the University of Liberia, as stated earlier, presents a sad, disgraceful, disappointing, non-intellectual and anti-free speech day. Besides, it is inimical to the image of the university. Hence, there is a need for the university authority to condemn the action of those were involved and stress the point that the university is and should remain the ground of intellectualism and the free exchange of ideas. There is also a need for the student government to condemn what happened. Human rights groups should also speak against what was done to Mr. Ponpon and against free speech.
A famous statement in history, a statement made by a German Pastor called Martin Niemöller, is one germane to this discussion. He made the statement in relation to the refusal or unwillingness of the intellectuals of Germany to speak against the diabolic and systematic activities of the Nazi regime in which the Nazi regime was sequentially eliminating people or a whole nation whom they didn’t like.
Pastor Martin Niemöller’s statement goes like this:
First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
Believe me, my people. We will never stop following the issues.